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Image credit: Mitch Diamond via Getty Images

California mall owner's license plate readers send info to ICE (updated)

A real estate company is reportedly feeding visitor info to a database accessed by ICE.
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Mitch Diamond via Getty Images

Some shopping malls in California are scanning license plates and sending that data to a surveillance vendor that works with -- and sells information to -- Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. That's according to a report by tech watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation, which discovered that a regional real estate company operating retail centers across the western state is feeding visitor information into a nationwide database that ICE reportedly gained access to at the beginning of this year.

The Irvine Company has installed automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) at "one or more" of its shopping malls in the city, according to its privacy policy, which notes that the information collected is sent to Vigilant Solutions. That's the company providing license plate recognition data to ICE, The Verge reported back in January. While The Irvine Company's retail locations are probably providing only a fraction of the 2 billion license plate photos in Vigilant Solutions' database, nobody was aware that their license plates -- and ergo, their behavior patterns and location information -- were being collected while shopping.

ICE isn't the only customer buying Vigilant's data: The company also shares it with up to 1,000 law enforcement agencies, the EFF's report noted. Its sister company Digital Recognition Network also sells information collected by ALPRs to financial lenders, insurance companies and debt collectors. And as the watchdog group pointed out, the only reason we know about this connection is due to a 2015 California law requiring ALPR operators to disclose their policies online. In other words, who knows what other companies are feeding Vigilant Solutions your license plate data?

Update 7/11/18 12:15PM: When reached for comment, The Irvine Company's chief communications officer Scott Starkey provided this statement on its behalf:

"Irvine Company is a customer of Vigilant Solutions. Vigilant employs ALPR technology at our three Orange County regional shopping centers. Vigilant is required by contract, and have assured us, that ALPR data collected at these locations is only shared with local police departments as part of their efforts to keep the local community safe."

Starkey also provided a statement from Irvine Police Department spokesperson Kim Mohr, which stated that IPD uses data legally collected by ALPR setups for its own investigations and never shares the information.

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